Toddlers object when people break the rules

July 26, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- We all know that, for the most part, it’s wrong to kill other people, it’s inappropriate to wear jeans to bed, and we shouldn’t ignore people when they are talking to us. We know these things because we’re bonded to others through social norms – we tend to do things the same way people around us do them and, most importantly, the way in which they expect us to do them.

act as the glue that helps to govern social institutions and hold humans societies together, but how do we acquire these norms in the first place?

In a new article published in the August 2012 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers Marco Schmidt and Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology aim to get a better understanding of this important ‘social glue’ by reviewing research on children’s enforcement of social norms.

“Social norms are crucial for understanding human social interactions, social arrangements, and human cooperation more generally. But we can only fully grasp the existence of social norms in humans if we look into the cradle,” says Schmidt.

Schmidt and Tomasello were specifically interested in understanding children’s use of a type of norm called constitutive norms. Unlike other norms, constitutive norms can give rise to new social realities. Police, for example, are given their power through the ‘consent of the governed,’ which entitles them to do all sorts of things that we would never allow an average citizen to do.

Constitutive norms can be found in many places, but they are especially important in games like chess – there are certain norms that make chess what it is. So, for example, if you move a pawn backward in a game of chess, you’re not just violating a norm by failing to follow a particular convention, you’re also not playing the game everyone agreed upon. You’re simply not playing chess.

In recent years, Schmidt and Tomasello, along with Hannes Rakoczy of the University of Göttingen, have conducted several studies with the aim of examining how children use constitutive norms and identifying the point at which they stop thinking of game rules as dictates handed down by powerful authorities and begin thinking of them as something like a mutual social agreement.

In one study, 2- and 3-year-old children watched a puppet, who announced that she would now ‘dax.’ The puppet proceeded to perform an action that was different from what the children had seen an adult refer to as ‘daxing’ earlier. Many of the children objected to this rule violation and the 3-year-olds specifically made norm-based objections, such as “It doesn’t work like that. You have to do it like this.”

In another study, Schmidt, Rakoczy, and Tomasello found that children only enforce game norms on members of their own cultural in-group – for example, people who speak the same language. These results suggest that children understand that ‘our group’ falls within the scope of the norm and can be expected to respect it. And research also shows that children don’t need explicit teaching from adults to see an action as following a social norm; they only need to see that adults expect things to work a certain way.

Together, these studies suggest that children not only understand social norms at an early age, they’re able to apply the norms in appropriate contexts and to the appropriate social group.

“Every parent recognizes this kind of behavior – young children insisting that people follow the rules – but what is surprising is how sophisticated children are in calibrating their behavior to fit the circumstances,” says Tomasello.

Schmidt and Tomasello hypothesize that enforce social norms as a way of identifying with their community’s way of doing things. Enforcing social norms, then, is an integral part of becoming a member of a cultural group.

The researchers are planning on conducting more research in this area. Understanding social norms, they argue, “is essential to understanding the social and cooperative nature of the human species.”

Explore further: Social norms for obesity learned in childhood

Related Stories

Social norms for obesity learned in childhood

December 19, 2011
Newcastle University research studying siblings has revealed that childhood experience and genes may set your weight rather than social networks later in life. 

Research states that prejudice comes from a basic human need and way of thinking

December 20, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Where does prejudice come from? Not from ideology, say the authors of a new paper. Instead, prejudice stems from a deeper psychological need, associated with a particular way of thinking. People who aren’t ...

Earlier autism diagnosis could mean earlier interventions

October 13, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Autism is normally diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 3. But new research is finding symptoms of autism spectrum disorders in babies as young as 12 months. If children could be diagnosed earlier, it might ...

'Motherese' important for children's language development

May 6, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Talking to children has always been fundamental to language development, but new research reveals that the way we talk to children is key to building their ability to understand and create sentences of ...

Recommended for you

Researchers develop new tool to assess individual's level of wisdom

September 20, 2017
Researchers at University of San Diego School of Medicine have developed a new tool called the San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE) to assess an individual's level of wisdom, based upon a conceptualization of wisdom as a trait ...

Alcohol use affects levels of cholesterol regulator through epigenetics

September 20, 2017
In an analysis of the epigenomes of people and mice, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the National Institutes of Health report that drinking alcohol may induce changes to a cholesterol-regulating gene.

One in four girls is depressed at age 14, new study reveals

September 20, 2017
New research shows a quarter of girls (24%) and one in 10 boys (9%) are depressed at age 14.

Tablets can teach kids to solve physical puzzles

September 20, 2017
Researchers confirm that when 4-6 year old children learn how to solve a puzzle using a touchscreen tablet, they can then apply this learning to the same puzzle in the physical world. This contradicts most previous research ...

How the shape and size of your face relates to your sexuality

September 19, 2017
Men and women with shorter, wider faces tend to be more sexually motivated and to have a stronger sex drive than those with faces of other dimensions. These are the findings from a study led by Steven Arnocky of Nipissing ...

Behavioral therapy increases connectivity in brains of people with OCD

September 19, 2017
UCLA researchers report that people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, when treated with a special form of talk therapy, demonstrate distinct changes in their brains as well as improvement in their symptoms.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.